If you get stuck in your writing, just write like John Steinbeck
March 2, 2013
At those conferences I hear people talk about finding your voice, developing your own style.
I’m all over that. Every writer has her own voice. That’s a given.
But if most authors are like me, and that’s a big if, they find themselves falling into certain ruts. Maybe they like to lead off with a passage about the weather, or describe every piece of furniture in the room before they introduce a character, or write pages of dense prose before they come to a line of dialogue. Maybe they are always showing instead of telling.
You catch my drift.
So, it struck me that one exercise that might help introduce some new approaches to writing for the author would be for her to attempt to take on a great writer’s style.
Please understand, I am not suggesting that an author abandon her style and become nothing but a mimic. Rather, I am saying that if she pays enough attention to the inner workings of great writing, not just a passing familiarity with it, it may elevate her art.
My intention is to run a series of these occasional posts that will feature a snippet from a writer who by all accounts has chops. Some of the writers will be household words, others may have their stars in ascendancy, but the writing selection will be good.
Okay. Enough beating around the bush.
When I think of John Steinbeck, winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature, the first title that comes to mind is Of Mice and Men. The edition I have (pictured above) is a Penguin Books paper back. It is one hundred and seven pages long.
So much for the notion that a good book has to be a long one, huh?
Here is Steinbeck’s description of the first appearance of Slim, the jerkline skinner.
A tall man stood in the doorway. He held a crushed Stetson hat under his arm while he combed his long, black, damp hair straight back. Like the others he wore blue jeans and a short denim jacket. When he had finished combing his hair he moved into the room, and he moved with a majesty only achieved by royalty and master craftsmen. He was a jerkline skinner, the prince of the ranch, capable of driving ten, sixteen, even twenty mules with a single line to the leaders. He was capable of killing a fly on the wheeler’s butt with a bull whip without touching the mule. There was a gravity in his manner and a quiet so profound that all talk stopped when he spoke. His authority was so great that his word was taken on any subject, be it politics or love. This was Slim, the jerkline skinner. His hatchet face was ageless. He might have been thirty-five or fifty. His ear heard more than was said to him, and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought. His hands, large and lean, were as delicate in their action as those of a temple dancer.
In those two hundred words, Steinbeck has introduced us to a man we want to know, to meet, to watch in action.
I don’t know what those who teach writing would say about that passage, whether it is too provincial, arcane, old-fashioned, or what. But for me writing doesn’t get any better than that.
Let me know if you try your hand at a Steinbeck knock off. And please list any authors in the comments you would like me to feature in future “write like” posts.
(Stephen Woodfin is an attorney and author of six novels. Click here to visit his author page on Amazon.)